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Isn't there anything good to say about life as a chef?

All of the negative posts about life in the culinary world have been very distressing to read. My son is off to culinary school in the fall (J & W), and is quite passionate about the road ahead of him. He's had some great experience this past year working with some of Boston's top chefs and has loved every minute ( and yes, the days were very long). So, I ask.....any good experiences out there? Any happy chefs?

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  1. Well, according to today's L.A.Times, Spago's Lee Hefter seems to be enjoying the ride...


    1. i've been in the business a long time. front of the house. i feel profoundly lucky that i get paid to pursue my passion. most people i know tolerate or even hate their jobs. i love mine.

      yes, it's long hours and i will never become a millionaire. and i've worked for some (boston) chefs who should be committed. that being said, i can't imagine doing anything else.

      if your son has found his calling, best of luck to him!

      2 Replies
      1. re: hotoynoodle

        I often feel left out of such discussions, as I am a relatively contented chef with a kitchen crew that makes me proud and happy every day. There is rarely any yelling, instead respect and a sense of fun. Bad language, sure (but that's my fault). That said, I'm surely no celebrity, and never will be. Does that come with the territory? Or with the big money? Then you can have them.

        Best of luck to your son. There are all kinds of kitchens out there ; )

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          hotoynoodle, I feel exactly the same way. Restaurant work just gets into your blood. I tried to leave that world behind for a bit a few years back and took a desk job,(to appease my parents, I think), and I left that job feeling like my entire soul had been sucked out of me. When I returned, I think I had grown just enough to get out of jaded server mode into mature, happy, glad to be of help server mode. Since then, I have also been among the very few to say that I love my job, and I look forward to going in to work every day. And you're right; no very many people can say that. And the same thing goes with chefs. Restaurants are fascinating places to work. Those of us that love it, are miserable in other settings.

        2. What, you think long hours, low pay, crazy people, and repetetive stress injuries are 'negative'? If your son truly has the passion, those negatives will just be minor annoyances in a profession that otherwise brings him great satisfaction.

          I think cooking really is a calling, and those of us who hear the call answer it becausewe have to. There is no other place for us, and we accept that the kitchen is where we need to be. The warnings you read are to try to give people with a fantasy of a chef's life a reality check. Thinking it looks like fun is not enough. You do need to have passion, drive, love, skill, the gift of some actual talent. I had an extern recently who went to pastry school because, well, he was going to do computer science but there was too much homework...I doubt he'll get very far. The financial horror stories are true, too. Spending $80k because you really like to watch Food Network isn't going to pay off. I think those who go to culinary school and are most sucessful are the ones who go because they already know enough to really want to learn more, really love food, and are curious and driven to learn as much as they can. It sounds like your son might do well.

          1. Working in a kitchen is hard, often crazy work.

            That said -- I loved it. Even my worst day in a kitchen was better then my best days at any other job. I loved the pace and energy of the work, and how it demanded that you be able to think fast and move fast and make the right decisions at the right moment.

            And I loved the autonomy -- as long as the right plate with the right food is going out at the right time, how get there is totally up to you (caveat on this - I never worked in really high end places. my bosses were usually thrilled if more then half of the kitchen staff showed up sober) .

            Another I loved was the scope for creativity and just plain fun you had in the down times -- I remember one time working at the Chinese restaurant, and cadging a cup grand marnier from the bar one day when we were totally dead, and teaching the dishwashers to make crepe suzettes. Fun.

            1. As all of these restaurant people are saying, "If you love your job, you'll never work a day in your life."

              2 Replies
              1. re: yayadave

                I will not bore you with the details, but I operate a successful catering operation in the Los Angeles area....I was our first cook...I will not call myself a chef. I am self taught and loved every day I worked in our kitchens. We have grown our business dramatically over the last 20 years...I do not work in the kitchen any longer(We have hired chefs that are more capable of taking the company to new heights. I miss every day that I am no longer producing in a food production capacity. I went home dead tired every day...but I loved it!!

                I wish your son the best of luck...it is a great calling

                1. re: yayadave

                  lol, um, no. trust me, i know i *work* for a living. big difference between my 16 hour days and my evening on the deck with a bottle of sancerre!

                2. The ONLY thing I didn't like about my years in the kitchen were the hours, and it wasn't that they were long, but that they ended at midnight or later. The pay wasn't great, but it was enough, and I loved the slow nights when we could get creative and experiment with stuff to see if we could invent a new 'special'...or just whip up a batch of onion rings for the crew. I knew, tho, that if I wanted to have a social life outside the restaurant, I would have to find other employment...so I did.

                  1. i'm happy. . . maybe really broke/in debt, overworked, stressed, a little crazy from being shut up in a kitchen away from people, the fact that i haven't had health insurance for 15 years is becoming problematic as i get older. . . but i'm happy. i get to work with beautiful produce all day long.

                    1. Yes, the culanary field is a tough one, but construction is also. And think of the danger of some other carriers. Its really about what you love to do. Low pay and long hours is somthing that all young cooks go throu. The path he couses is up to him. Give him support and and he will do just fine.
                      As for Lee at spago, he really isnt one to look up to. he sets the tone for the nose in the air kichen he runs, his foods bland and played out.

                      1. I didn't read the other thread. I think it depends on where you end up. I don't like to cook but have been doing a lot (according to my standards) in the past month. It's very physical, standing up all day, chopping, bending to get food out the fridge, etc. My BIL was a cook at a high class restaurant and worked weird hours. He now has another cooking job that he enjoys with normal hours and in an environment where the creative things he does is appreciated and looked at in awe, not responded to by, "Is that it? What else can you come up with?", being yelled at (like on Hell's Kitchen - OK, maybe not that bad, but any yelling is unprofessional), or working long days but off the clock because he's "expected to."

                        1. I used to be in the field, but not any more. The hours and low pay (and chauvinism) got to me. That said I do love food and cooking both for myself and for friends. Not to mention, cooking well, creatively, quickly and efficiently is a skill that is very handy to have in general. And I am still tickled to have a bunch of friends over and they are amazed that I cooked for so many people (like 10). I just want to laugh, after cooking for hundreds at work, I could fix dinner for ten in my sleep.

                          As others have said, if it's your passion, all those aspects that others consider serious downsides, you'll barely notice.

                          1. the important thing to consider is that Yes! those of us who have chosen this life LOVE it, and wouldn't be nearly so happy doing anything else.

                            It's extremely important for the young folks who see the glam of the tv chef to realize that's NOT the real life of a chef. Kitchen work is hot, the hours are long, and the work is hard and not at all glamorous. Before anyone signs up for culinary school and the hefty loans most entail, she or he should work at least 6 months in a professional kitchen. Notice I didnt say "cooking" in a professional kitchen, because most likely they will be a dish dog. If lucky, maybe peel a few potatoes. But they get to see what the life is really like, and whether it is for them.

                            Cooking a dinner now and then for family and friends bears no resemblance to cooking in a professional kitchen!

                            If your son has loved working in a professional kitchen, perhaps he is cut out for the life of a restaurant cook. Remember, most cooks never rise above the line.

                            1. The main premise behind the OP is that everyone who is in the culinary field is a chef who works in a restaurant, which skews the concept that all culinary work is back breaking, poorly paid and done during horrid, long hours.

                              I am a culinary graduate who runs a personal chef service that teaches people cooking skills and numerous other things to enhance the experience in the kitchen. I teach personal classes in people's homes, and offer services for wine dinners, tastings and wine and food pairing. In the true sense of the word, I am not a 'chef'; I have the culinary background, professional training and skills. I am also a freelance food writer. I am not rich, but I am not poor either and every day I get to show people how to enhance their lives by learning to cook better, healthier and smarter for themselves. I have clients who have lost numerous pounds, lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol and made sweeping health changes all because I gave them the skills to make the change. The rewards are too expansive to even begin to cover and I absolutely love what I do.

                              Not all people who go through culinary school will be chefs, nor even work in a professional kitchen. Of the 14 people who graduated with me, only 2 aspired to run their own kitchens some day, and the class behind us a semester had only 1 out of 19 who wanted to be a chef. The rest of them had a whole range of ideas for where they would put their training, and no one had any grandiose fantasies that it would be easy, prosperous or make us wealthy. The only difference in our training was that we were at a technical college for our program and my total cost for the entire 18-month program, including my knives, uniforms and books cost me less than $7,000 which I paid out of my own pocket as did all of my classmates. Our program was extensive and very rigorous, and our instructors were top notch.

                              There is a mindset that the only thing you can do with a culinary degree is work in a restaurant for little pay, long hours and tedious work, but the truth is that there are multitudes of options available for a culinary graduate who is willing to think outside the box. I have built my business from the ground up and it isn't always easy but I would never trade what I do for anything else.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: cooknKate

                                Great post - and it sounds like you've created a wonderful life for yourself. I think people are WAY too quick to turn their noses up at technical schools or community college programs. These schools often offer terrific programs and value for your money and are clearly one of the answers to the outrageous amounts of money charged at most "Culinary Institutes".

                                1. re: flourgirl

                                  Very true. They provide practical hands on skills and a way to test out whether you really want to spend your life (or the next ten or twenty years anyway) at this or that vocation.

                                2. re: cooknKate

                                  That sounds great! It sounds like you are really doing what you love, and approaching it with creativity. Like you said, it probably won't make you rich, but it puts food on the table, you are doing something you enjoy and you have the satisfaction of building your own business and seeing it succeed. Do you mind if I ask what part of the country you are in?

                                  To the OP, some of the food related but non-restaurant jobs a culinary school grad might do: catering chef, hotel banquet chef, hotel food & beverage management, nutritionist/dietician, menu consultant, restaurant reviewing, food writing, personal chef, farmers market management, product development, testing kitchen, industrial kitchen, teaching cooking in HS, technical college, or private groups and individuals. And that's just one person brainstorming.

                                  1. re: cooknKate

                                    Thanks for sharing. The person I spoke about went to a community college... looks like it turned out great for him. There are many choices for schools and certainly many choices for careers too.

                                  2. Add me to the list of very happy culinary professionals! The great thing about this field is that there are hundreds of jobs that you are able to experience with a culinary degree, so much more than cooking/running a kitchen should you choose. Alton Brown went to culinary school to gain a better background so he could produce some type of food show or another. I spent 16, regret free, years in the thick of commercial kitchens because it was what I loved doing. I now am the Executive Chef for a large university and I don't have to work 70-90 hour weeks any more, yet I am still totally immersed in all things food. This I love also. The opportunities are endless, the adventures always thrilling and the bond created through food is like no other I have experienced.

                                    1. chef life lol. its a hell of a ride!! good luck

                                      1. Like all things in life there are trade offs. I too went to a CC and received my AS in Culinary Arts. I worked in the industry for four years and left to pursue my BS and MS in Food Science. So I am a hybrid as most Food Scientist do not know the fundamentals to cooking and most Research Chefs don't have the attention span to sit through calculus, physics, several organic chems, and bio-chems.

                                        By putting in my time in restaurants, I can honestly look at my current boss and say he can't shake me. I also learned a LOT about negotiation from working in restaurants. You want someone to do something they don't like, what's in it for them. Plus nothing is below me. As a lead R&D technologist, they need me to pack a cooler to send samples? Cater a meal 25 people using our products to showcase our portfolio then run dish tank? 21 hour plant run? No sweat.

                                        But the trade off, I went to a CC, even with two degrees from a Big Ten School, people like seeing CIA, LCB, or J&W that on a resume. Add another $30K to the debt I still have. Even individuals who take a short 9 month course at the 'name culinary programs' and Food Business degree (no science) has more prestige than all the extra effort I put out. Will they beat me out of a job, possible. Do I need the MS I earned for my current position? Nope. Did it give me an edge over other applicants, maybe. A general Research Chef will usually make less than a Food Technologist, but they will have more prestige. The average chef will make less than a RC, but a star chef will make more than any Food Technologists. Honestly it makes your head spin.

                                        Let him try out the restaurant business. If he loves it, let him be. If he starts to burn out suggest some other alternatives: food stylists, research chef, food technician, food technologist, foods scientist, caterer, business owner, free lancer, or educator.

                                        1. Well since this thread is nearly 7 years old there isn't much to be said to actually help the OP at this time.

                                          My daughter is actually a freshman at J&W, hospitality not culinary program. I would love to hear from onefineleo and see now a few years into his career how his son feels about things.

                                          1. My reward for a career in F&B: Getting to play pool with Jean-Louis Palladin after a Make-A-Wish Foundation Dinner. My only regret is not getting into it sooner.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: 3MTA3

                                              he did a guest chef night at a place i worked. got to drink, hang out and go to a multi-hour chinese banquet in chinatown with him. it was a great night!

                                              man, though, he did smoke like a chimney. :(

                                            2. I've been cooking professionally for over 20 years. I've some great experiences(the people you meet and befriend, being surrounded by great food and drink) and some really bad experiences(asshole chefs and crappy wages) but you could say that about every profession I guess.
                                              Cooking for a living can't just be about the money/fame/ glory like the FN makes it out to be. You gotta have balls the size of watermelons to put up with the shit that will be flung at you on a daily basis. There are much easier ways to make a living, but not many that are as satisfying or rewarding.

                                              oops..I just noticed that this thread was 7 years old.. oh well :D

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: petek

                                                It was still interesting to read your input. Thanks!